BORIC, Dusan (Ed). Archaeology and Memory. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010. 210p. Resenha de: PRIJATELJ, Agni. Documenta Praehistorica, v.37, 2010.
Stimulated by a growing interest in the issue of memory, remembering and forgetting in the various fields of humanities and social studies, this volume illuminates the relationship between archaeology and memory. In doing so, it raises some perennial but also novel questions. What is the relationship between materiality and memory? What diverse mnemonic systems for inscribing the ‘past in the past’ can be discerned through archaeological records? How does archaeology understand time and, consequently, represent the past? What are the consequences of the interplay between the uses of memory and archaeological practice? Varied answers are provided by eleven contributors from the fields of archaeology, anthropology and the arts. As far as the organisation of the volume is concerned, twelve papers are organised into three sections. Following a theoretical introduction that gives an historical overview of the development of the concept of memory in philosophy (Bori!), there are seven papers (Whittle, Bori!, Tringham, Jones, Hanks, Boozer and Gutteridge) which are concerned with the theme of the ‘past in the past’. Six of these elaborate on diverse prehistoric and classical case studies from the Eurasian regional contexts. The seventh, on the other hand, is written as a personal recollection of how the creation of the archaeological record has changed through time with the development of digital media (Tringham). The final section in the book comprises four papers which explore the archaeologies and memories of the contemporary past, three of them through selected case studies (Filippucci, Weiss, Baji!) and the fourth from a theoretical perspectives (Buchli).
A number of key points arise throughout the twelve chapters. First, memory which can be seen as a curated and fragmented past embedded in the present is expressed through incorporated bodily actions and performances. However, it can be also inscribed as a text into material objects, monuments, landscapes and places by the practical engagements of people with the world. Several philosophical concepts, particularly concepts of trace, citation and repetition/recapitulation (Bori! p. 16–21, 24–26) which are of practical relevance for examining the relation between remembering, forgetting, and materiality, allow the contributors to present a number of case studies of materialised memories embodied in the forms of dwelling structures (Whittle, Bori!, Boozer), monumental public architecture (Gutteridge), burial structures (Whittle, Bori!, Jones, Hanks), votive offerings (Jones), landscapes of conflict, violence and war (Filippucci, Weiss), as well as digital archaeological archives (Tringham) and virtual museum (Baji!).
Second, singularity is not in the nature of time – on the contrary, it is inherent to each segment of time to be composite. Hence, the present (also the present in the past) is formed as a palimpsest, consisting not only of the present time, but also of fragments of different pasts. This phenomenon is most readily observed in our physical environment, as is shown by an illustrative case study by Gutteridge. The author describes the locale of the Arch of Constantine as a place where past and present conjoin in the form of historical topography, peopled by tourists, street merchants and men dressed as gladiators and centurions equipped with 21st century gadgets such as mobile phones. Similarly, the distinction between the past and the present is dissolved in the Arch itself: spoliated reliefs from at least three older monuments are used intentionally to achieve an effect of timelessness along with the elision of biographical and cosmic time. As Gutteridge stresses, this principle of selective curation negates the linear temporal principle of historic time and instead creates a bricolage of events and their material manifestations that are “moved, shuffled, and relocated in the spatial and temporal landscape, … never fully out-oftime” (p. 168).
Third, following the sociological distinction between individual and collective memory, the majority of authors seek to examine diverse engagements with the world that are involved in creating collective identities and collective memories. When, for example, Whittle (p. 38) writes on dwelling and the everyday activities of “building structures, herding animals, tending crops, procuring raw materials, interacting with co-residents, neighbours and others, and attending to the level of floodwaters when they came” that came about in the Neolithic settlement of Ecsegfalva 23 in the Great Hungarian Plain, he brings to the forefront social knowledge and collective memories as preconditions for daily life. On the other hand, as shown by Boozer, archaeology is able (in particular instances) also to touch upon the topic of memory in relation to personal identity construction and maintenance. The case study of an elite male who decorated his Roman Egyptian house in Amheida by the end of third century with Homeric mythological scenes reveals the particular strategies used by a wealthy individual to define his position within the imperial framework.
Fourth, the past living on in the form of materialised memories returns and is never completely gone. Weiss’s paper, which explores the landscapes of conflict and violence created in the 1990s Balkan wars, presents the immense power of mutilated landscape and how these are able to pull victims into a loop of reliving past atrocities. The author asks that a more equitable role for material evidence be given in relation to written documents and witness testimonies in international criminal tribunals, since “there is a profound tenacity inherent in certain objects, markers and monuments in the landscape – a tenacity tending towards the continual recapitulation of the intentions and agendas of power” (p. 192).
Fifth, similar to memory itself, archaeological objects, places and landscapes often convey traces of repetition/ recapitulation. This is illustrated by two Meso/ Neolithic contexts of the Danube gorges (Bori!): in the case of Lepenski Vir, older, Early Mesolithic hearths were (partially) superimposed by later trapezoidal structures; while in the case of Vlasac, burials were superimposed at the same location for several generations. According to the author, both examples convey the principle of reproduction which enables the past to live on in disguised form in the present, yet, on the other hand, this brings with it – besides tradition – innovation and change.
Sixth, the nature of historical time is dissimilar to the nature of archaeological time: while the former consists of dates and chronologies which arrange singular events into a unilinear sequence, the latter represents the fusion of fragmented and materialised pasts and the present entwined in a continual dialogue.
Gutteridge brilliantly illuminates this point by comparing the nature of archaeological narratives with the principle of spoliation:
“In archaeology, this spoliation, … The repetitive rhythmic movement between the past and the present, the removal of individual instants from their embedded layers of context, the shuffling of our kaleidoscopic attempts to combine different pasts to speak to the present, and our refusal to let these fragments fall away silently from the future, all play a role in the ways in which we create and interpret our cacophonous spoliated memorials to the archaeological past” (p.168).
These are the highlights of this book. Yet I would also like to point out to some of the difficulties that arise when the concept of memory is applied to archaeological discourse. The biggest hindrance stems from the fact that memory is primarily a psychological process and therefore difficult to trace in archaeological records. While the premise of memory embedded in materiality creates a bridge between the material and the immaterial, it does not necessarily help to recognise the fundamental distinctions between influence and memory or repetition/replication and continuity in the archaeological material itself. Indeed, dwellings were built on older dwellings; burials were reused or superimposed over older burials. Yet how can we penetrate behind the general statement that this was a meaningful reuse of space and grasp the actual meanings behind it? Even more so, since the psychological, social and cultural experience behind these acts belongs to a world and time of ‘others’. As exemplified by case studies of prehistoric burials (cf. Whittle, Bori!, Jones, Hanks), a vast range of speculations and unknowns is involved in interpreting archaeological traces of past commemorative acts. It is not uncommon that authors adhere to very general statements: a long barrow in Southern Britain is seen as a “loci of diverse remembrance” (p. 43); a superposition of burials at the site of Vlasac “evokes strict rules and closely- followed observances of the ‘ancestral’ ways” (p. 64); in North-western Scotland “the deposition of grave goods impress themselves upon memory” (p.114); in Iron Age Eurasia “elaborate tombs, … provided important physical contexts for both inscribed and embodied memory practices surrounding the lifestyle of the warrior” (p. 134). This kind of ambiguity in formulations originates from the constraints of archaeological material that inhibit the recognition of a particular and intentional commemorative significance in preserved traces. What becomes obvious when reading through the book is that the concept of memory is used to much greater effect in the case studies of explicit intentionality of monumental public architecture, textual narratives (in this volume, Documenta Praehistorica 2010 book reviews 341 presented by studies of figurative depictions, digital archives and virtual museum) and our contemporary pasts which allow us to recognise our intense psychological, social and cultural engagement with them.
Archaeology and Memory contains a wealth of interesting case studies and ideas. While the theoretical chapters (Boric, Buchli) are challenging, the book’s subject matter and its interdisciplinary scope make reading highly rewarding. This book should be an indispensable read for anyone ready to expand the range of questions on the past and to reflect on the ethical responsibilities of archaeological narratives.
Agni Prijatelj – Durham University